When the U.S. Senate confirmed a new Secretary of Agriculture today it affirmed the nomination of a former governor, a veterinarian, an agribusiness entrepreneur…and a pilot. As a young man, Sonny Perdue flew a crop duster and, after college but prior to earning his DVM, served as an Air Force pilot.
George Ervin Perdue III still flies, and he qualified as a helicopter pilot while serving as governor of Georgia from 2002 to 2011. He’s been called Sonny since his childhood on a diversified Georgia crop and dairy farm and will be sworn in as ag secretary using the nickname.
If Sonny Perdue approaches his new duties in the same way he fulfilled his responsibilities as Georgia governor, expect him to emphasize steps that make the USDA run like a well-maintained combine. Before he left the governor’s office, Perdue told reporters he’d want to be remembered not for some monumental accomplishment but for “making government work.”
Perdue’s record as governor is strong on trade. He established Georgia’s international trade office in Beijing. During his administration, traffic at the port of Savannah increased from 24th busiest in international shipments to 6th. Sonny Perdue led trade delegations to Cuba (a major consumer of Georgia’s poultry) and to South America.
After leaving office, Perdue and cousin David Perdue (a former Dollar General Stores CEO) founded Perdue Partners, an Atlanta company that facilitates exports through “trading, partnerships, consulting services and strategic acquisitions.” (David Perdue was elected to the Senate in 2014 and serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee.) Sonny Perdue’s record on trade could resonate with legislators who initially hoped for a Midwestern nominee.
The last three ag secretaries were from Iowa, North Dakota and Nebraska. As a result, farm policy has focused on corn and soybeans. Southerners would prefer subsidy programs more favorable to rice and cotton. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse said he wants to help Perdue understand “the unique interests of Midwest agriculture.”
Nevertheless, Republican leaders from the Midwest express optimism about working with Perdue. Backers point to his time on the board of the National Grain and Feed Association and as managing partner of AGrowStar, which operates elevators in Georgia and South Carolina. According to North Dakota’s Senator Hoeven, who met Perdue when they were both governors of their respective states, says “he knows how to work with everybody.”